Toning shoes — also called fitness shoes or rocker shoes — seem to offer benefits to the mass market. In the mid-2000s, shoe manufacturers picked up on the concept of these shoes with gusto, claiming the shoes could do everything from boost muscle strength and tone to improve your balance and posture, relieve stress on your joints, and relieve foot, leg and back pain. As with every claim that seems too good to be true, the shoes offer mixed results.
Rocker bottom shoes have been around longer than most of us realize, according to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. “Podiatrists and other medical professionals have been prescribing them for decades to treat gait problems, foot or ankle pain, arthritic conditions and deformities,” says the AAPSM. However, these initial shoes were not mass produced, they were custom fit to meet the specific needs of individual patients. The mass-market shoes exhibit differences from model to model, but they are produced for a general audience, not specifically tuned to individual needs.
In general, toning shoes have thick, soft soles that are built on a curve, like a rocking chair. The softness creates an unstable platform, the rocker encourages the foot — and the associated muscles up the leg and into the core — to move more. Every time you take a step, your landing is unpredictable, forcing different muscles in your calves, thighs and buttocks to kick in and work harder. It’s the same theory behind boot camp workouts, in which no two workouts are the same, thus keeping your muscles from anticipating a move and performing it more efficiently. While efficiency is good in most arenas, an efficient work out burns fewer calories and tends to let the muscles off the hook.
According to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, toning shoes have been shown to have some benefits. The unstable design, it reports, “could strengthen and condition muscles that are underutilized in some conventional footwear.” Two studies from 2010 — one conducted over a six-week period, the other over eight weeks — found that the shoes did result in better balance for wearers, reports the AAPSM. One study found that people wearing rocker soles burned slightly more calories than those wearing conventional athletic shoes, though participants who went barefoot burned the most calories. That study was funded by MBT, one of the initial companies in the toning shoe market. Other studies have found no discernible difference in calories burned based on shoe worn.
Reining In The Rhetoric
Shoe manufacturers have been taken to task for their claims. In 2011, Reebok reached a $25 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over claims that its EasyTone shoes were were more effective than regular walking shoes in strengthening the buttock, hamstring and calf muscles. The settlement stipulated that future marketing claims had to be supported by scientific evidence. Further, researchers suggest that while toning shoes may initially result in better fitness because of their unstable nature, the body eventually will adapt to them and function more efficiently.
No Harm, No Foul
The unstable nature of toning shoes may be a problem for people with more pronounced balance issues, but otherwise the shoes have not been found to cause injuries. That’s prompted some medical professionals to say that, while the shoes may not be a panacea for weight loss and muscle tone, if you like the way they feel and balance isn't an issue, go for it. Besides, adds Dr. Edward R. Lakowski, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist writing for the MayoClinic.com, if they make you want to work out more, your overall health is likely to improve.
Joe Miller has been writing about health, fitness and outdoor adventure since 1992. For 10 years, he wrote a weekly outdoor adventure column, Take It Outside, for "The News & Observer" in Raleigh, N.C. He's the author of three books on hiking and backpacking, with a fourth, "Adventure Carolinas," scheduled for release from UNC Press in spring 2014. He has a Bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.